Although I consider myself a fan of science fiction, I hardly ever read science fiction books. I watch science fiction on both small and big screens. Connoisseurs of the genre may point out that, I’m missing out on about 99% of what passes for science fiction by only experiencing it though television and film. I would like to read the classics of science fiction, as a remedy.
The science fiction I do read are mostly books by Octavia Butler (1947-2006). I first encountered Butler as an African-American woman writer and this is probably why I picked up her books in the first place. Since the best science fiction (well all science fiction, really) is about human society, I was instantly drawn to Butler’s use of speculative fiction to explore issues of race, gender, freedom, slavery, class struggles and social progress. Now, I’m wondering why I didn’t explore more science fiction literature once I had discovered Butler. But let’s not go there again :). fledgling (2005) was the last book she published before her tragic and untimely death in 2006. It’s a book about vampires. I am loath to go near any vampire literature or film, but the book was written by Butler so I had to read it.
In typical fashion, Butler has upended traditional vampire lore and created a new narrative for the genre. Her vampires are a completely different species called the Ina, who have co-existed and co-evolved with humans since time began. The Ina, as in traditional vampire lore, drink blood and must sleep during the day. But the similarity ends there.
The book opens with this:
I awoke to darkness.
I was hungry-starving!-and I was in pain. There was nothing in my world but hunger and pain, no other people, no other time, no other feelings.
This narrator turns out to be Shori. She’s been injured and is suffering from amnesia. Over the course of the book, Shori will learn who and what she is. This, of course, means that the reader learns about the ways of the Ina just as Shori herself is discovering the ways of her people. I loved this about the book. I have to say that I bonded with Shori. Sounds funny, I know. But there is something precious and touching about a narrator who is as clueless as I am regarding the ways of the Ina.
The Ina are tall and white and are catatonic during daylight hours. Shori’s Ina mothers experimented with genetics and spliced the genes of an African-American woman into Ina genetic material and created Shori. Shori, unlike other Ina, can function during daylight and she appears, even for an Ina child of eleven years (roughly 53 in human years), to be relatively stronger than her peers. And therein lies the conflict at the heart of fledgling. Transformation in most vampire lore deals with the creation of the vampire. In this book, one is born, not made, an Ina. However, the creation of Shori effectively transforms and improves the Ina. The fact that she is black threatens some Ina families. And Shori must fight to defend and protect herself and the very idea and implications of her existence.
There are other sub-plots and themes in fledgling that are also fascinating. The Ina live in mutual symbiotic relationships with their human partners. They need human blood to survive. They don’t typical kill humans unless under duress. But one bite from an Ina makes a human addicted to their venom. Each Ina needs 8-10 human symbionts for blood nourishment. Butler uses the Ina-human relationship to explore issues of sexuality (hetero and same sex), slavery, free will and love. It is clear that once bitten, a human cannot resist an Ina. Hence, there is a degree of coercion built into the Ina-human relationship. And yet, it appears that most symbionts are happy. This, of course, flies in the face of current popular thinking about free will, independence and happiness in a love relationship.
Like other Butler heroines, Shori’s size belies her power, a power she does not abuse but instead uses as a tool against oppression and for the survival of her kin. She is practical, methodical, sympathetic and loving. She reminded me a lot of Dana in Kindred, another of Butler’s novels.
fledgling was a delight to read even though certain parts were very uncomfortable. I confess that I found the first part of the novel more engrossing than the second. Only because the latter half involved a procedure quite like a courtroom scene. I would have liked to read the sequels and prequels to the book. But alas, that will not be. I recommend the book and I hope that I’ve dropped enough hints about Butler’s body of work. If it’s been too subtle then: I think you are missing something special if you have not read a novel by Octavia Butler!